REAMDE by Neal Stephenson

August 23, 2012 at 2:42 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews | 2 Comments
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Reamde CoverSince the publication of Cryptonomicon in 1999, people have been having a hard time putting Neal Stephenson in a box. It was his science fiction that first catapulted him to prominence with first Snow Crash and then the Hugo award-winning Diamond Age. Cryptonomicon felt similar somehow to Snow Crash, with its irreverent style, technological speculation, and (it must be said) paper-thin characters, but its two storylines were set in the present day and World War II, not the future. In the genre subsection of Wikipedia’s article on the book, it first notes that it was nominated for science fiction awards, then admits that the book is really closer to a hybrid between historical fiction and techno-thriller. Since then, Stephenson’s work has been more easily classifiable, from his enormous historical fiction trilogy The Baroque Cycle to the solidly science fictional Anathem. But his latest book, REAMDE, brings us back to something like Cryptonomicon‘s genre, whatever that was.

Now the above paragraph isn’t bad evidence for the argument we should dismiss genre as a marketing device and ignore it when we talk about books. The reason I bring it up, however, is that provided we all operate from the same definitions of the terms involved, genre distinctions allow us to say some complicated things quite concisely. Cryptonomicon was a novel that used the techniques of both historical fiction and the techno-thriller in service to a science fictional sensibility. Specifically, it was saying that technology had changed the world in interesting and not entirely understood ways, and entertaining though it was, the novel was attempting to illuminate those changes. That’s the mission statement (well, one of them) of science fiction, which is why the novel as a whole felt like science fiction even though none of its individual parts were.

Conversely, REAMDE uses some of the techniques of science fiction in service of a techno-thriller sensibility. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how you feel about science fiction and techno-thrillers. Anyone who has read this blog, or even just the right-hand sidebar, will be able to guess how I feel about it.

REAMDE is set in the very near future, a future that is almost exactly like the present except that World of Warcraft is no longer the dominant massively multiplayer role playing game. The new king of the hill is T’Rain, and Stephenson invests a fair amount of time in explaining the game’s development history and what differentiates it from what has gone before. He does so with his characteristic humor and clarity, and an ignorance of existing games is probably no obstacle to enjoying the novel. Unfortunately, as someone who does know something about the games industry, I never found T’Rain believable as an actual game. I’ve had this problem with Stephenson before. Snow Crash was the novel that introduced virtual reality to what seems like an entire generation of people, but when read closely many of the details didn’t make sense. In the case of T’Rain, Stephenson has a couple of interesting ideas about game economies and gamification, but he doesn’t seem to care much about actual games, so many of the details of the virtual world that he casually drops are jarring and bizarre. For example, we are told T’Rain is set on a virtual planet that is the exactly the same size as Earth and are treated to an in-depth discussion of the geological simulation software used to generate the terrain. Anyone who has played these games would know that’s absurdly large, and that in real games it is common for a game character to be able to jog across the entire “world” in less than an hour. That’s not to say it’s impossible to make a much larger game, or that it wouldn’t be an interesting thing to attempt, but it would have a lot of implications both for the gameplay as well as the development process, none of which are discussed in the novel. That’s just one example, but almost every gameplay detail that’s mentioned is like this (another example is the fact characters continually get stronger and there’s no level cap). These apparently throwaway details can’t be combined into a model of T’Rain the game that makes sense, presumably because the author doesn’t particularly care.

Since T’Rain is the center of almost all the book’s speculative content, if REAMDE was really a science fiction novel my difficulties with the game would have been a nearly fatal obstacle to my enjoyment. Instead, it didn’t matter much, and the true obstacles lay elsewhere. The novel’s actual plot begins with an extortion racket run by Chinese hackers. As described, their method for stealing data and selling it back to its owners is, if not completely impossible, then deeply implausible. It works almost perfectly, of course, and through an incredible series of coincidences they accidentally steal data from a Russian crime syndicate which in turn takes some Americans hostage and brings them to Xiamen to try to recover the data. Through a further string of coincidences, one of these hostages ends up taken prisoner by Islamic terrorists and brought with them back to the United States as they prepare a 9/11-style attack.

From the preceding paragraph it should be clear REAMDE is one of those stories that sounds utterly absurd when briefly summarized. I would put forward that whenever you notice this is true about a story, you resist the urge to immediately rule out the possibility that this is because the story really is utterly absurd. For much of the first half of REAMDE, Stephenson’s prose is amusing enough that I was willing to just go with it in spite of how increasingly silly it all seemed. But around the halfway point either the author or the reader ran out of steam and the whole thing became more and more of a slog (I want to blame the author, but it could have been my patience…though it’s worth noting that REAMDE is an extremely long novel and reader endurance, or lack thereof, is one of the reasons most authors avoid this kind of length).

Thanks to the T’Rain material, there’s a novella’s worth of good science fictional ideas contained within REAMDE‘s plus-size length. As I’ve said it wouldn’t be a good novella, but it’s worth mentioning that inside that novella is a novelette about the two fantasy authors contracted to write T’Rain’s lore that’s a funny and effective satire. But all of this is a sideline to the novel’s real business.

REAMDE‘s true identity as a techno-thriller is revealed by its deep interest in questions of tactics. What’s the fastest way to find a Chinese hacker in Xiamen if you know their IP address but can’t leverage local law enforcement? What should an MI6 operative do if their espionage operation’s cover is blown? How do you take a stolen plane from China to North America without the authorities detecting you? Stephenson has what seem to me believable answers to these and many, many similar questions, culminating in the novel’s “climax”, a large gun battle described in excruciating detail across hundreds of pages. Stephenson has choreographed every second of this afternoon-long engagement, frequently slowing down to inventory the orientation of a character’s hips and the inclination of each arm. The result is like watching a tabletop wargaming enthusiast demonstrate their favorite game by playing both sides for hours while you sit and watch, and about as interesting.

Throughout this process no attempt is made to address any questions more substantial than this endless tactical trivia. You’d think a writer as thoughtful as Stephenson wouldn’t be able to write such a long novel with Islamic terrorists as the bad guys without saying something about Islamic terrorism as a phenomenon. But no: though Stephenson is careful to draw his terrorist characters from a vast variety of backgrounds, he never presents any thesis about why they are doing what they are doing. This is particularly noticeable with the chief villain, Abdullah Jones, born and educated in the West and portrayed as culturally distinct from most of his fellow travelers. Why would a man with Jones’ background become an Islamic terrorist? It’s not that I didn’t like the book’s answer, or found it unconvincing, but rather that the novel does not provide even a banal answer to this question. Maybe we shouldn’t expect psychological realism from a novel with a plot as hard to take seriously as this one, but for me it was frustrating to read a book so focused on answering how at such incredible length without ever discussing why.

This is why I began with a discussion of genre, because this is not a flaw unique to REAMDE, but rather one it shares with many techno-thrillers. While there are other antecedents, what most people think of as techno-thrillers were born out of the Cold War of the late 1970s and early 1980s in America. The American military had changed dramatically since Vietnam but the long-awaited fight with the Soviets failed to materialize. To a certain type of person, this aroused an intense curiosity in the form a modern war would take. Writers like Tom Clancy did their best to provide realistic renditions of the mechanics of a modern first-world conflict, but they had to resort to increasingly implausible geopolitical measures to generate these narratives. There were good reasons, after all, this sort of war wasn’t happening in the real world. In Clancy’s case, this meant he eventually was delivering impeccably researched descriptions of the American military in cartoon strategic settings, like a Japanese invasion of the Marianas islands. In REAMDE, Stephenson posits there are Islamic sleeper cells in the United States and Canada with an operational strength of several dozen suicide-willing people unknown to American intelligence. A few people really believe this is the case, but you never get the feeling Stephenson is one of these people. He just wants to have enough tokens on his final battle gameboard to make it interesting.

Because REAMDE has a plot that punishes any attempt to look at the big picture, I’ve so far ignored the characters. By Stephenson’s standards they are pretty good, especially at first, but the longer the story goes the less impressive they are. Richard Forthrast appears to be a stand-in for Stephenson himself, being about Stephenson’s age and interested in most of the same things. The main difference is that Richard is incredibly rich…make of that what you will. Other than being a vector for the author’s opinions, Richard never gets to do all that much, and the book’s real action revolves around Zula, who is sympathetic but very generic, despite what should have been a fascinating background as an African war orphan. Beyond them there are a dozen or so minor characters, all of whom are characterized by applying a single adjective to a national stereotype. So there’s the crazy Russian man, the competent Russian man, the friendly Chinese woman, the geeky Chinese man, etc. In a startlingly old-fashioned maneuver, at the end of the story the author hands out relationship assignments for three pairs of characters.

Like many of REAMDE‘s problems, the characters would have seemed stronger if the book had just been shorter. Stephenson’s chief weakness, in my estimation, is that he has the stamina to write at such incredible length (and so much success that editors have no desire to rein him in), a length which magnifies other problems while undermining what is clearly his great strength, his wit and humor. What we need is for some hero to offer Stephenson an incredible amount of money to write an 80,000 word self-contained novel. I say hero, but actually everyone would make out like bandits when Stephenson’s usual sales volume rolled in and weren’t weighed down by production costs (the costs of editing and production should mean a bigger margin on shorter novels, even for ebooks).

I can’t end this review without mentioning the title. Thanks to the slow pace of book publishing, before the book even came out I had many months to consider it. Well, actually for the first month or two I misread it and thought the book was going to be called README, a reasonable title for a book I thought was about the Internet. Then I realized it was, in fact, REAMDE. Although for years I have wanted to write a post on this blog about SF titles, I’ve never wanted it quite enough to actually do it, so I can’t link to my criteria. You’ll have to take it on faith that REAMDE is a bad title, record-setting bad, by all but one (whatever its other faults, it’s very easy to Google). A lot of genre books have bad titles for understandable reasons, but it turns out REAMDE is called REAMDE because the Chinese scam uses a file called REAMDE. Why is that file called REAMDE, you ask? The answer provided by the novel, which you recall analyzes everything in tedious detail, turns out to be that REAMDE is just what the file was called. It doesn’t mean anything. So perhaps it’s an apt title after all.

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